The orange rays of the sun reflected the dark shades of the trees that filled the forest. The trees of the Black Forest reached high in the sky, some reaching far enough that they disappeared into the clouds above.
Leah still couldn't believe that they were in the Black Forest, the home of the demon beasts. The Black Forest was the only place in the Reignheart Kingdom that was still covered with dark mana and had not been regained by the kingdom. The entire forest was always covered in darkness–mostly because of the dark colour of the trees and the surrounding plants which had absorbed the dark mana.
People who ventured into the forest were either adventurers who aimed to gain some fame or merchants who were in a hurry to reach the outlands. These merchants would hire guards to help them cross the forest safely, just like Martha's son.Anyone who entered the Black Forest unprotected always paid the price. Those who went in unprepared were never seen again, leaving nothing but sorrow behind. Decades have passed since the last traveller was taken by the forest but those in the kingdom still live in fear.
Zero was still panting after getting out of the coach, he had a very painful look on his face. Looking at him, Leah remembered an elven practice.
He surely can't have that. Leah thought.
"Hey Kevin, now will you tell me why we're in the Black Forest?" Leah asked. "It feels creepier every second we stay here. And do you know what's up with him?" She pointed towards Zero.
Kevin shot a glance towards the direction she had pointed, he saw Zero struggling to walk near a tree.
“Don't know, he usually gets like this when he tells that story but don't worry. He will be fine in a day or two.”
“In a day or two!! Have you gone crazy! We are in the Black Forest. Do you realise that?” Leah cried out.
“You should calm down princess, we both have camped in the Black Forest for weeks, you should be fine with us. I will be setting up the camp now, find me if you need anything.”
Camping in the Black Forest? He must be crazy, but talking to him cleared my suspicion. I think I can help him. She thought.
“And Princess, you should keep your voice down in the forest. They say that Beasts are often attracted to loud noises. And they attack it first,” Kevin said as he let out a chuckle in the end.
Unimpressed by his joke, she turned to look at Zero. He was now sitting against a tree, trying to calm himself down. Leah wondered why Zero was so tense the more time she spent with them. More and more questions seemed to pile up.
These two are so mysterious. Who are they? Why are we here? Why did they invite me to tag along? None of this will be answered unless I ask them myself. I need to ask them when the time is right, for now let's just focus on helping Zero.
Leah slowly walked up to Zero but he didn't notice her presence. She tried calling out his name but it was of no use. She grabbed his shoulder to snap him back to his senses but he immediately shrugged her off. Zero looked towards her painfully smiling, and said,
"Oh, I'm sorry. I didn't mean to startle you. I was just lost in deep thought, don't worry about me, I’ll be fine."
Though Zero smiled, it seemed that he couldn’t hide the pain and fear he felt. Unconvinced with his words, Leah grabbed his shoulder again but this time, she let some of her mana flow through her hand into his body. After a few minutes, Zero had regained his composure.
"Leah, what did you do?” Zero asked in amazement, “All the pain I felt a moment ago is gone. It usually takes me a day or two when something like this happens."
Leah let go of his shoulder and sat beside him. "What you experienced was the agitation of your mana flow in your body."
"Agitation of my–what?”
"Well, that's what we elves call it. Agitation is common for people who haven't learned to control their mana properly. And it’s sometimes caused by some trauma or incident."
"Oh. If it's that common then why doesn't everyone face it? Not everyone trains in mana control anyway."
"Like I said, it's different for everyone. Everyone eventually learns mana control but when a particular feeling heavily dominates the body, the person's mana goes berserk and it causes agitation of their flow through their body. The person is unable to control it for days or weeks.”
Leah turned towards him and said, ‘In your case, it seemed like the cause was fear. Since you visualised a horrible scene while you were telling me the story of Martha’s son. Your mana went berserk."
"Wait... you said it would take days or weeks to normalise but it takes me only a day to get over it. How did you fix my mana flow?"
"You only need to take a day because you have the least mana capacity I have ever seen. I think it's pretty much comparable to a dwarf," Leah said, letting out a chuckle at the end. "And as for how I corrected it, it was simple. I just used my mana to guide your mana flow back to its proper state."
Zero was in awe. "Thank you, Leah. For helping me." It seemed like he was almost tearing up.
"Oh! So our hero is now a crybaby," Kevin called out.
Zero groaned. "How do you always appear when I have an embarrassing moment like this?" He protested.
"Well, it will be worth telling your mom. I wonder what her reaction will be?"
"Don't you dare say any of this to her." Zero said with a piercing glare.
"You will see when we meet her. For now, let's eat and rest up."
The three of them headed towards the camp that Kevin single-handedly set up. There was a fireplace, a tent and everything that you would need to camp outside at night.
"Guys, I think we have a problem." Leah said with a shaky voice."I don’t have my own tent to sleep in."
"Hey Princess, you don't need to worry about that. The tent is for you. Both of us will be sleeping outside while having watch duty and besides, Martha will never forgive us if we let you sleep outside."
Leah was struck with surprise.
Is this really a coincidence or was this all planned beforehand? Almost everything is happening in my favour, it's a little too hard to believe.
"Thank you," Leah said with a smile
The three of them sat around the fire, eating the freshly cooked meat.
"This meat is too good. Kevin, did you make this too?" Leah asked.
"He may be able to single handedly make a camp, but cooking is out of his league." Zero intervened.
"Nobody asked you, Mr. Crybaby."
"What did you say!"
Before things could get out of hand, Leah stopped the both of them. "Wait a second, then who made these?"
"Martha did. She usually gives us some provisions every time we leave the inn," Kevin replied.
I must thank her when I return, Leah thought.
After a long chat with the two boys, Leah excused herself into the tent. The tent was spacious enough for two people to rest in, but she would be the only one there. As she lay down on the cold hard ground, many strange questions came up in her mind.
What am I doing here? I don't even know what the ruins are but I still followed them into the Black Forest. I must be insane, but I feel like this trip is worth the trouble I would go through.
Zero and Kevin still sat around the fire, staring into its golden Blaze. Leah had retired for the night, and the two of them were on watch duty.
"Zero, you should rest. You must be tired after that disruption in your mana flow."
"I’m fine. With Leah's help, I feel better than before."
"Okay, then I need to ask you a question."
"Go ahead," Zero said as he ate the last of the meat.
"Why did you insist on bringing her with us? We could have just left her in town, with Martha."
"I would like to know that as well," a voice called out from the bushes.
Zero and Kevin drew out their swords, ready to engage the enemy.
"Who are you?" Kevin shouted.
"Kevin, go and wake up Leah. We may have to fight," Zero said, still focused on the direction of the voice.
"No need to wake her up,” the voice replied, “I am not your enemy."
A shadowed figure came out of the bushes into the light. It turned out to be the coach woman, who had brought them here into the forest. She gently removed the veil that she was wearing, revealing bright golden hair which reflected the fire and gave off an orange hue. She had emerald eyes and elongated ears.
An Elf! Zero thought, his eyes widening in amazement. He was unable to move or think about anything else.
"My name is Elyelel Eden, the official ambassador of the kingdom of Elvendom. I am also Leah's older sister."
Zero let out a sigh of relief as he sheathed his sword. Regaining his composure from this shock he said, "My name is Zero, and this is my friend Kevin."
"Firstly, I would like to express my gratitude for saving my sister. And I want to know–why didn't you bring her to the palace? Even after you knew about her identity. You know this is punishable by death."
"How did you know that we know her identity?" Kevin asked in surprise.
"I have been following the three of you for a while now. We found two bodies near the place Leah was last seen and we found both of you when Leah was brought to that dwarf inn. So now answer my question," she demanded.
Zero felt Elyelel letting her mana flow out, pressuring them. Their body felt twice as heavy, making them bow a bit naturally, making it a bit hard to breathe. Before Kevin could do the same to make their situation easier, Zero stopped him so as not to offend her.
He got down on one knee and said,"I sincerely apologise for our mistake, milady, but the answer you seek is not a simple one. I would request you to have a seat. I will do my best to answer your questions."
Elyelel raised her eyebrow when Zero addressed her as ‘milady’, but decided to not pursue it further. "Very well."
The three of them now sat down around the fire.
"Now speak!" Elyelel demanded after they had taken their seats.
"Milady, as you may know, your sister was attacked by assassins. If my guess is right, Lady Leah must have left the palace without your notice."
"That is correct. What of it?"
"Milady, my words may sound offending but I must say it, I don't trust the royalty."
"What do you mean? Speak clearly." Elyelel said in a commanding voice.
"What I mean is the assassins were sent by someone close to Lady Leah, who knew where she was at that particular time."
"Nonsense!” Elyelel drew out her sword on his neck. “Are you accusing the royalty of treason? Do you expect me to believe that?"
Kevin drew out his sword in response. Ready to attack Elyelel.
Why do all elves aim their sword at my neck? Zero thought, cursing his own fate.
He signalled Kevin to put his sword away and replied,"I don't expect you to believe me, milady. It was because of this reason that I insisted Lady Leah travel with us. If she stayed in town, she would definitely be attacked again. And we could not call for you since that would mean revealing the lady's identity."
Pulling back her sword from Zero’s neck, Elyelel said, "Do you think my sister would be attacked so easily?"
"That's not it, milady. As far as I have seen Lady Leah fight, she cannot be bested easily, but she is unable to sense attacks that are without any killing intent.
No matter how strong a person is, they can't fight an enemy who can't be seen. And we have come here to the Black Forest since it would not be easy to attack us with all the demon beasts around."
"Hmm… I suppose that’s a wise decision, now that I understand your motive. It seems I had nothing to worry about."
The pressure that surrounded them finally lifted.
"I would like to thank you both for saving my sister."
"It was our pleasure, milady."
"When I return, I will investigate the matter we discussed. Make sure Leah knows nothing of this."
"As you wish, milady," Zero replied.
"Before I go, take this. It is a tool used in our kingdom for communication. You only need to supply it with mana to activate it. Use this to contact me if anything happens."
Elyelel handed Zero a Gilded pocket watch and began to walk away from the fireplace.
"A fair warning,” Elyelel said. “The ruin you are heading towards will be guarded by royal knights. Be careful."
As the last of her voice vanished, she disappeared into the darkness of the Black Forest. A breeze of relief blew over the boys and all the tension and pressure that had built up was finally released like pressure from a kettle.
"Zero, I never knew you could speak so formally," Kevin said, nudging Zero.
"It's something I picked up at the inn when servants of nobles come in."
"That's brilliant.” Kevin looked at him. “But what do you think about the warning she gave us?"
"There is nothing we can do now. Anyway, we will know when we reach it."
"Zero, I think we should prepare for the worst-case scenario."
"There is nothing to worry about, Kevin."
Kevin let out a chuckle."You are a reckless idiot as always."
"Yup, you said that right,” Zero replied with a huge grin on his face.